Month: September 2014

Driving back from Devon I: Barrington Court

Barrington Court 4Barrington Court is a splendid Tudor House and garden in Somerset, now owned by the National Trust. National Trust membership may seem a lot when you join, but as long as you visit five or so houses within the year it is well worth it; my trip to Devon covered three houses in a single journey.

When the National Trust acquired it in 1907 there were orchards of cider apples and pears and over the years, these have been added to, so that there are now 9.5 acres of orchards, with almost 400 apple trees. They are a mixture of cider, culinary and dessert, with some trees old and gnarled, while others are young and sprightly.

Crucially, there is a good cafe, with seats overlooking apple trees. There is also a proper restaurant, but I’ve never tried it. Not far off the A303, it makes a perfect ‘motorway stop’. Although, for those in less hurry, it is only minutes away from Montacute House, Lytes Cary Manor and Tintinhull Garden which could almost justify a membership card in one go.

Depending which route you choose, you can get to the house via the Kitchen Garden. The most striking feature here is the arches over the central path, which are bedecked with ornamental gourds; large orange pumpkins hang at eye level, seemingly fairly secure. Either side of the Barrington 2path the garden is divided into quarters, with flowers, fruit and vegetables neatly laid out. Here there were lovely combinations: espaliered apples with scabious, powder blue ageratums with either deep red or lemon yellow snapdragons and airy cornflowers everywhere.

Near the house are Gertrude Jekyll-inspired gardens. She was in her seventies, and almost blind, when the gardens were being planned, but biscuit tins of the limy soil were sent to her. Just by feel, she was able to recommend the most suitable plants. There is a rose and iris garden, a formal pool with lily pads and white garden. On the day I visited a stray pink cosmos had invaded the white plantings, it looked rather good. The path to these gardens goes past the old Bustalls or calf pens, festooned with roses at this time of year.

The house itself is a typical Elizabethan E-shape, built of softly weathered stone, now a gentle yellow colour. Next to it is the contrasting red-brick Strode House, converted from the grand seventeenth century stables. Little of the interior of Barrington Court remains, but my favourite room is the panelled Long Room, which runs the length of the house, looking out over the gardens. Here you can easily imagine Elizabethan ladies, in their long dresses, walking up and down, discussing the matters of the day.

There are apple trees wherever you look. The area I like best is the East Orchard, which is beyond the house. To reach it you go through a pair of splendidly ornate gates, old and worn, but still imposing. The orchard is rather higgledy-piggledy, with twisty trees of various ages, contrasting with the neat rows of the orchards by the main entrance.

Also at Barrington there is a large area of (quite good and very cheap) second-hand books and an excellent patchwork shop. I sometimes come here simply for fabric. Jane

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Driving to Devon II: Knightshayes Court

Knightshayes 25Lunch was at Knightshayes Court, near Tiverton in Devon, a splendid Gothic Revival house with a lovely garden and the necessary café in the stables. In Rory Stuart’s book What Are Gardens For? the Green Garden here is listed as one of ‘The World’s Best Garden Experiences’. It is a secluded space, with an oval pool, a silver pear tree, a statue and a stone bench. I have visited Knightshayes many times before and I must admit that I only remembered this part of the garden vaguely; I think I had probably glanced round, thought ‘Yes, nice’ and moved on. This time I was determined to look properly.

There are terraces below the house, leading to the almost-obligatory spectacular view. But this is not to deride the view; it is spectacular. The path then leads to the Paved Garden, which has silvery-leaved plants together with purple and yellow flowers. ADD. The entrance to the Green, or Pool, Garden is guarded by two delightfully shaggy topiary dragons. They had sprouted summer growth since their last clipping and now looked furry, rather than fierce. The garden itself is beautiful, very beautiful, in a quiet, contemplative way. The simplicity contrasts with the riot of colour in the borders outside and the greys and silvers of the pear and the statue provide just enough variance to the greens of the grass, lily pads and hedges. Luckily I had it to myself and I was able to appreciate the fact that, in this case, less is definitely more. I would like to visit Rory Stuart’s other recommendations, many are in far flung destinations such as China and Brazil, but Hidcote and Snowshill Manor are easily reachable.

I walked back through the Chase Garden, where (again charmingly fluffy) hounds chase a Basil Brush-like fox along the top of the hedges. Knightshayes also has lovely woodland walks and a jealous-making Walled Kitchen Garden with mulberry trees, cutting borders and the full range of fruits and vegetables that one would expect to find providing a manor house. I have a deplorable tendency to speed through the interiors of National Trust houses, but Knightshayes itself is definitely worth venturing into, with, amongst other things, a splendid imitation vaulted Great Hall, which the family used for afternoon tea. Jane

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Driving to Devon: Kilver Court

Looking at other people’s gardens can be an inspiration for one’s own. True, it can often inspire comments along the lines of ‘I wish. . .’, but there are usually some ideas you can adapt and take home. With this is mind I went on a jaunt to Devon to see a friend, visiting gardens as I went. First stop was Kilver Court in Somerset, conveniently placed for elevenses if you use the M3 and A303. 

Kilver 7The buildings began life as a woollen mill in the early 1500s and since then it has been a ‘model factory’ with a boating lake and allotments for the workers, semi-derelict, home to ‘Babycham’ and the backdrop for many of Mulberry’s photo shoots when their headquarters was based there in the 1990s. It now houses various retail outlets (Toast and Mulberry amongst others), a farm shop, a nursery, a health centre and an excellent café.

Stepping into the garden, the first thing you notice is the extraordinary backdrop – a huge, (disused) Victorian railway viaduct.  It somehow manages to look stately and dramatic, but not too industrial.  You enter the garden beside a neatly clipped parterre and the path then crosses the millpond and continues round the water. Beneath the great stone arches there is a triangular lawn edged with deep borders, packed at this time of year with brilliantly coloured late-flowering perennials. The millpond stream tumbles down through a recreated Chelsea Flower Show rockery. It was constructed in the 1950s and now looks part of the garden. Conifers provide upright structure, heathers, hostas, hardy geraniums and sedums perch on the rocks and, in between, the Japanese maples were just beginning to show signs of spectacular autumn colour to come. Hidden up above the mill are the Kilver Community Allotment Gardens, which are neatly laid out with raised beds. Beyond was a stile, leading to an enticing-looking walk, but I had to get on. Jane

A Show at Wisley, with Dahlias

This September’s RHS Wisley Flower Show was spectacular in itself, with numerous Chelsea Gold Medal Winners amongst the trade stands and the most wonderful arrays of plants in peak condition.

The only downside was the traffic overflow, which meant one took 20 minutes driving far slower than a man could walk to reach any car park and this then necessitated quite a trek to get to the Show itself.

It was still very worthwhile; despite the crowding nearly everyone seemed happy. Flowers of that standard just seem to do the trick.

The occasion also provided the setting for the National Dahlia Society’s Annual Show which took place in a large marquee, packed with blooms in what might be called “every imaginable Technicolor hue”. The Society was founded in 1881 and has remained steadfastly true to its values. As its website says “for over a century (it) has given unbroken service to gardeners interested in this wonderful flower.” Its Roll of Honour Gold and Silver medals are touchingly awarded simply for “services to the dahlia”. Fashion has passed it by. When gardeners convinced of their own good taste once loved to mock and scorn the dahlia as “vulgar, vulgar, vulgar!” the Society ignored them as a load of rather silly people who wouldn’t know a good thing if they saw it. Now dahlias are a part of so many superb and highly creative gardens, the Society continues as before, albeit very pleased at the good sense others are at last showing. It quite properly remains essentially unmoved in its own certainty as to what constitutes a good plant.

It holds two major shows each year, the one at Wisley and the other at Harrogate; both in September when the majority of blooms will be at their best. Those exhibits inside the Wisley tent were every inch show dahlias, with a limited number of stems and flowers in each vase and every one in perfect condition and conforming as nearly as possible to the judges’ guidelines. This presentation, like those at most single-plant societies’ shows, is of course very different from the way most of us use dahlias in our gardens. I, and I think many other gardeners nowadays, choose to use them as part of mixed plantings, treating them as an element of the overall effect in the same way as one might squeeze out some oil paint onto a palette. That said they are glorious when used in a top class cutting garden such as the one we mentioned at West Dean.

One imagines, despite the constant introduction of new varieties, that little has fundamentally changed in the world of show dahlias. But this hardly matters, what counts is the incredible warmth of atmosphere, pride in achievement and the friendship and camaraderie amongst the exhibitors and judges. They had come from all over the UK, including some from Northern Ireland and were very open to engaging in conversation with any visitor who wanted to talk. I have seldom met a happier group of people. They are clearly not in it for the money; even a major prize would only buy a few litres of petrol. Somehow they reminded me of one of the most laudable aims of the Declaration of Independence: “the Pursuit of Happiness” and to look around you might well believe they had achieved it.

We should remember what a debt we owe to these stalwart groups of people, who have preserved and enhanced the flowers we so happily and relatively carelessly use like paint. If you go to the next autumn flower show, take a look at the dahlias. They’re worth it.



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